I tried to say something uncontroversial, and perhaps it is commonsensical in spirit. But there are few interesting claims which can be articulated in more than a cursory manner without becoming contentious. Even that one, probably.
Here I try to account for extra-linguistic facts. In particular, I ask whether there is good sense to be made of the notion of facts which don’t depend on the way we use words. In the background are various theories such as social constructionism and deconstruction.
What are extra-linguistic facts? Two intuitive responses seem to be in tension. On the one hand, we want to say that they are the things that linguistic symbols point to, refer to, stand for, denote, represent, etc. On the other, we don’t want to say that the entities in question are themselves ‘facts’. Facts are propositional – they involve things like quantification, at a minimum of complexity. For example, a cat isn’t a fact. “A cat exists” is a fact. “Jarred the cat exists” is a fact. But put this way, facts look essentially linguistic. It seems impossible to distinguish a fact and the statement of a fact (and statements are unavoidably linguistic). In order to make such facts extra-linguistic we might conceive of them as structured propositions. Structured propositions are “complex entities, entities having parts or constituents, where the constituents are bound together in a certain way” (King, 2011). They are, in other words, arrangements of things in the world (objects, properties, relations, regions, times… exactly which entities you want to talk about will be determined by your ontology). So, a cat could, apparently, constitute a structured proposition. But is it a fact, too? Perhaps all facts are structured propositions, but not all structured propositions are facts. Or perhaps not! I’m not sure. Maybe there is a one-to-one correspondence between structured propositions and facts. In that case, the cat would be a fact. That looks weird. Still, it seems to get us the result we want: there are extra-linguistic facts, and this is what they are like.
But doesn’t this approach smuggle in language by describing the entity constituting the proposition (i.e., the cat) in a certain way, (i.e., ‘the cat’)? Whether “there is a cat” is true depends on whether it is a fact that there is a cat. The question is whether the latter is extra-linguistic, i.e., doesn’t depend on linguistic matters (what words mean). I think it is. Changing the meaning of our words doesn’t change whether or not it is a fact that there is a cat. It can only change what ‘cat’ means. If we change the meaning of the word ‘cat’ such that it refers only to dogs, then it might not be true that ‘there is a cat’, because there is a cat, but possibly no dog – that is, because we have only been given the fact that there is a cat.
Notice that when I use the word ‘cat’ in stating the fact, I am using it with its standard meaning. I could just as well state the fact using the word ‘dog’ given its just-now stipulated meaning. None of this changes what I have stated, which, recall, we are supposing is a structured proposition, i.e., the thing in the world, the cat.
Remember the old story about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is said to have asked: “how many legs would a dog have, if we called the dog’s tail, a ‘leg’? Five? No, calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.” We can distinguish two claims that might be made here. There is the claim “If we called a dog’s tail a ‘leg’, then it would be true that dogs have five legs”. This is the claim that Lincoln denies, and rightly so. The sentence is false. Dogs would not have five tails. Here, the word ‘legs’ is used in the second clause, viz., “dogs have five legs”. But in a variant of the example, the claim might be made: “If we called a dog’s tail a ‘leg’, then it would be true that dogs have five ‘legs'”. This claim is true. Here, ‘legs’ is being mentioned. The sentence is merely claiming that dogs would have five ‘legs’, under the new definition of ‘leg’. One can consistently deny the first sentence while endorsing the second. A dog can have, as it were, five ‘legs’ and four legs, if we keep the use/mention distinction in mind, and know that when ‘legs’ are mentioned here, it is given the newly stipulated meaning.
The only point I wish to make in concession to the ‘linguistic constructionist’ (a vague label) is that which facts we recognize, or are inclined to see, are those which can be stated in our language and which are conceptualized in our ‘conceptual scheme’.
What I am suggesting – and this is an empirical claim along the lines of the so-called weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – is that if indeed we called tails ‘legs’ and had no word for tails, we would be less likely to recognise the fact that dogs have only four legs. And if we had no concept of <tail> then such a recognition may not even be possible. Possibly, would would not be able to make that discrimination*. In the life-world of the person without the vocabulary or concept of <leg> as we understand it, legs would not exist in the everyday sense; they would not be salient.
I should quickly emphasize the distinction between words and concepts. Obviously it is possible to make a given discrimination without having the vocabulary for it, otherwise nonhuman animals would have a hard time getting on in the world. But words and concepts appear to be intimately related in human psychology; learning and using language helps shape and facilitate the deployment of various concepts, and how we use words is shaped by our prior ‘conceptual scheme’. So having the words for a given discrimination makes it more likely that we will deploy the relevant concept and hence make that discrimination. Also note that ‘discrimination’ in the relevant sense is not mere perceptual discrimination. Of course in some sense any creature with a comparably powerful visual system will perceive a difference between legs and tails. But I am interested in something stronger: a conceptual discrimination. A discrimination is conceptual if it distinguishes two or more types of thing. To conceptually discriminate between a tail and a leg is to register the existence of two types of entity, associated with (or constituted by) various properties and conditions. Thus, conceptual discriminations are not merely numerical discriminations. An alien visitor might distinguish a chimpanzee and a human standing side-by-side in the minimal sense of observing that there are two animals standing next to each other, but fail to make the conceptual distinction between humans and chimps. They might only have the very coarse notion of <humanoid animal>.
* Thanks to Noon for bringing various issues here to my attention. This is one of the more contentious claims I make. Part of what is problematic about claiming that concepts are necessary to make the relevant kinds of discrimination is that ‘concept’ is ambiguous. I have tried to avoid the difficult matter of giving a theory of concepts – a subject on which there is of course an enormous literature. To do any justice to the issues here, one would have to be given. All I would say for the moment is that I am working with a fairly generous concept of concepts.
Noon suggested that a person could notice a clydesdale in a lineup of horses and register it as of a different type without having the concept <clydesdale horse> or even <draft horse>. Several points. First, I think lacking such concepts (and/or words) would make this less likely. Second, were it achieved, the ability to discriminate between the horses in the lineup might depend on having a relatively narrow concept of <typical horse> which is used to eliminate the clydesdale. Third, if we stipulate that the person has never seen horses, and has never developed concepts directly related to horses, and yet manages to make the discrimination, we run up against a sort of paradox. If we insist that the person forms inchoate concepts in reaction to the information they are exposed to, and that is how they are making their discrimination, we question is: how do they form those concepts, if not on the basis of a prior discrimination? We need concepts to make discriminations, but we need discriminations to form concepts in the first place. I’m sure empirical psychology would have a lot to say here. I would only gesture towards the possibility that base-level perceptual discriminations begin a process of concept-construction which draws in various other related but more mature concepts, forming primitive concepts and allowing very rough conceptual discriminations.
King, J 2011, Structured Propositions, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)